ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE: BEST PICTURE
A stolid female Soviet agent is sent to Paris on business and is seduced by capitalist ways. [Dir: Ernst Lubitsch/ Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire/ 108 min/ Comedy, Romance/ Anti-Socialism]
As this film begins, three agents of the Soviet trade board have just arrived in Paris to sell some confiscated jewels, once owned by a Russian duchess who is now in exile. These rather comic agents are imminently corruptible, and they soon begin indulging in the unrestrained pleasures of Paris at the expense of the Soviet government. Meanwhile, the jewels become the subject of a legal dispute.
To sort out the matter, the Soviet government sends in envoy extraordinaire Ninotchka, a glum, high-level agent of the Soviet state. However, she too is quickly seduced by the West, and even falls in love with the very man who is negotiating against her. The next thing you know, the jewels are stolen. It’s complicated, but everything ends satisfactorily, with love and capitalism overcoming all.
For the most part, this film mocks the disastrous consequences of socialism, including mass poverty, censorship, and perpetual fear of the state. However, at the same time it also pays some respect to socialist “ideals.” As Ninotchka says at one point, “We have the high ideals, but they have the climate.” In this regard it’s a foreshadowing of the intellectual double standard that would maintain the respectability of socialism for years by crediting it with moral virtue in theory regardless of how it played out in practice. The capitalist alternative here is nonetheless preferable but shallow, a world of consumption and frivolity with no apparent need for work. This film seems an attack on seriousness as much as anything else. Of course, in 1939, when it was made, the world was still a little naive.
Anyway, this delightful romantic comedy is listed in almost every reckoning of the greatest films, reflecting both its terrifically witty script and a wonderful performance by Greta Garbo as the grim unfeminine agent of the Soviet state. It is indeed a great film, one of those classic movies everyone should see. One of my favorite bits of dialogue occurs between Ninotchka and a porter at a train station. Ninotchka: “Why do you want to carry my bags?” Porter: “That is my business.” Ninotchka: “That’s no business. That’s social injustice.” Porter: “That depends on the tip.”
If you enjoy this film, you may also like Silk Stockings, a musical version of the same story.